Politically Speaking: An Interview with Michelle McLean

Parliament is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, September 23 with a new Speech from the Throne that will lay out the Government of Canada’s long-term plan to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and provide the opposition parties with an opportunity to vote on whether they have confidence in the Government’s ability to navigate this new political reality. This comes with a lot of uncertainty—what is the plan for Canada’s economic recovery? What about research support for diseases and health concerns other than COVID-19? Are we rapidly approaching a fall federal election? With just a couple of days before the Government delivers its new Speech from the Throne, we turned to trusted government relations expert, Michelle McLean to find out what we might expect from Parliament later this week and over the coming months.

Michelle McLean is the Interim General Manager, Ottawa and Senior Vice-President, National Health + Wellness Sector Lead at Hill + Knowlton Strategies. An experienced lawyer, public affairs and communications professional in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors, Michelle is well known in political Ottawa for providing strategic counsel and support to a wide array of clients in the health advocacy sphere. She is a familiar voice to Research Canada, having joined us to share her political insights at member-exclusive webinars, meetings of our Board of Directors and Policy Engagement Committee, and as an Expert Panellist at our 2018 AGM Panel, What’s Next in Health Research Advocacy? Michelle has also written many Featured Blogs as part of Research Canada’s Your Candidates, Your Health Federal Election Campaigns, so we were thrilled to sit down with her once again to hear her thoughts.


RESEARCH CANADA: The question on everybody’s mind, as you can expect, is: are we having a fall election?

MICHELLE MCLEAN: All political parties are ready for an election; however, we are not sure whether the Liberals will force the NDP’s hand or not with their Speech from the Throne. There are a number of considerations, not the least of which is Canadians’ safety if there is a second wave of the COVID-19 virus. One thing we know for sure is that there will be an election within the next year, so either this fall or next spring. All parties are in campaign mode to be sure.

RESEARCH CANADA: What do you expect will be the focus of the Government’s upcoming Speech from the Throne?

MICHELLE: The Liberals will put forward a vision for the recovery period. They have coined a phrase being used in the American election:  build back better. The Speech from the Throne is as much for public consumption as it is an outline of the government’s agenda and focus for the forthcoming session of Parliament. It will be—no doubt about it—the Liberals’ election platform. The Liberals are expected to put forward a progressive agenda that focuses on important voter issues, such as the economy; social supports, such as a universal basic income; changes to long-term care; and it may propose measures on how we can build a greener economy. It will not delve into any details, leaving these for the Fall Economic Update and the next Budget. I do think it will weave through the Speech some of Canada’s strengths throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and recognize the research community for its important contribution in flattening our curve and equipping Canadians with the facts we needed to protect ourselves. It will also identify where we need to make course corrections moving forward and the latter will be the basis of their new proposals.

RESEARCH CANADA: What role do you think the Government sees the health research enterprise and health innovation ecosystem playing in the COVID-19 recovery phase?

MICHELLE: The Government recognizes that the science community is playing a vital role in our recovery from this virus. At the same time, the Government’s attention is on many sectors and issues so it will be important for the health research community and for health innovation stakeholders to continue to remind the Government of the role research and innovation play in overcoming the pandemic and, very importantly, the role the sector plays in addressing ongoing health concerns such as chronic disease. Do not assume they know specifically what you do and how you do it. They likely do not. You cannot assume that what you have told their predecessors or them a short while ago has necessarily set in and that you can now capitalize on past advocacy efforts. Repetition is important, especially during times like these when there are ongoing, urgent and pressing matters with which government must deal. Remind them of who you are, what you have done and specifically how you can help with the recovery period moving forward.

RESEARCH CANADA: The pandemic has shown us that fundamental science is central to our readiness to respond to serious health threats, providing security and hope in the face of unknowns, not to mention the yield in economic returns. Canada still trails the OECD in R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. How do we best position ourselves as a sector in the recovery phase to convince the Government that Canada needs to amplify its investments in fundamental science if we are to tackle the health challenges that threaten our economic security, reap the benefits of research and compete globally as a leading innovation nation? 

MICHELLE: The government is not likely to address fundamental science in its Speech from the Throne. It is likely to do so in the next Budget. Right now, politicians are in campaign mode and focused on voter concerns. This is not to say the Government is not planning for its recovery, but once again it is focusing on appealing to voters with a high-level plan, which is likely going to be their election platform. If governing continues, and we do not go to an election in the fall, it is a good time for the health research community to reinforce the important role that fundamental science played in our response to the pandemic and the ongoing important role it will play in the recovery period.

RESEARCH CANADA: COVID-19 has legitimately usurped our national research agenda and concern has been expressed by academic and health charity leaders that other research, like chronic disease research, is not moving forward. Do you see the Government during the recovery phase getting back to a more balanced research agenda?

MICHELLE: The Government is increasingly recognizing this issue and it will be an important one to continue to raise with them in the months ahead. This is a period of uncertainty with a second wave possibly looming so they are being cautious and selective in what they can address.

RESEARCH CANADA: The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that most patient-contact health research occurs in research hospitals, as do most academia-industry partnerships in health research. Yet, the future of these academic centres is at risk due to the suspension of pre-existing work to re-focus capacity on COVID-19. Is there a readiness within government to recognize this sector’s unique role in the health innovation ecosystem through, for example, direct funding and support to academic health science centres?

MICHELLE: This is such an important issue and I am encouraged by the constructive and collaborative approach the federal and provincial governments have taken to responding to the pandemic. They do see greater public support of their efforts when they work together, especially during a crisis. Canadians value their healthcare and when our health is threatened we do expect our elected officials to bury the hatchet and find solutions for Canadians. This newer approach to federal and provincial relationships can be capitalized on when talking about research hospitals and the support they will need in the recovery period and beyond.

 RESEARCH CANADA: Graduate students, trainees and post-doctoral fellows are integral to the research workforce, critical to the development of the highly qualified personnel necessary for Canada’s knowledge economy, and, in the case of PDFs, vital to supporting top-flight research projects. Early career scientists are facing significant setbacks in their research programs due to COVID-19 measures. While the Federal Government’s 2019 commitment to students was welcome, it fell short of the Fundamental Science Review’s recommendations for this group. How likely, in your view, is the Government in Budget 2021 to increase support for Canada’s next generation of researchers to ensure they weather the storm and flourish in post-pandemic Canada?  

MICHELLE: This is also a very important issue and the Government has shown support in its last budget for this next generation. The future of our science endeavour is dependent on strengthening our research workforce. I think this is a message that will resonate and will be supported by champions for research like the Chief Science Advisor. It will be important for the community to engage Dr. Nemer as your ambassador within government to make the case for the future of the health research and innovation ecosystem in this country. In the absence of a Science Minister at the Cabinet table to represent your views, you must have other champions within government and she can certainly be a very important one.

RESEARCH CANADA: The pandemic has highlighted the power of data and digital tools to protect Canadians and target scarce healthcare resources. The pandemic has also exposed the work that remains, including the imperative for harmonized data collection. To achieve better health outcomes for patients, ensure health system sustainability and promote research and innovation—the predicate of a stronger economy—new policies that enable data collection, sharing and analytics and support acceptance and adoption of innovative digital technologies are essential, and we need national leadership on this front. How likely is the federal government to take on this digital challenge in the next Parliament?

MICHELLE: I think digital solutions have become essential during this pandemic and we are not going back to old ways of delivering healthcare once this is over. We will go forward and in terms of the federal government supporting provincial governments through the Canada Health Transfer, I do think there will be more of a discussion. The Prime Minister has signalled that he is ready to sit down with the Premiers, listen and have a constructive dialogue on healthcare in the near future. I don’t think the outcome will be Ottawa simply transferring money. The federal government is likely to be much more engaged in determining what kinds of changes they want to see in long-term care and public health, for example. I expect digital healthcare solutions will certainly be part of this discussion.

RESEARCH CANADA: An effective vaccine is the most powerful tool to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic threat. Our capacity to develop vaccines and treatments depends on a fully supported health and biosciences sector. The Health and Biosciences Economic Strategy Tables Report of 2018 is the roadmap to ensuring this industry not only has a future in Canada but doubles in size to $26 billion in annual exports. Now is a prime opportunity to support our made-in- Canada industry, ensuring Canadians are not left behind in the global rush to a COVID-19 vaccine, and yet the government has not taken significant steps towards implementing the recommendations of this report. Do you have any insights into why not and; what in your view is our best foot forward in convincing the Government to do so?

MICHELLE: COVID-19 is definitely changing the Government’s understanding of the important role the health and biosciences sector plays in developing new medicines and vaccines in a health crisis. These industries, especially the biopharmaceutical industry, cannot be cast in a negative light when they are stepping up to the plate and contributing to the effort to stop this virus in its tracks. Quite the opposite, biopharma companies are an asset and a resource we cannot do without. The vaccine for this virus will be developed outside of this country. The government has to be asking the questions: Where are the Canadian jobs in this? Where is the Canadian access to life-saving treatments in this? They are likely considering that it may be important, moving forward, to strengthen our health and biosciences sector so that we can rely on our own made-in-Canada industry the next time around?  Closer to home in a crisis is always more reassuring!